Ex-Apple employees aim to revolutionize open-source network standards

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A team of ex-Apple employees, led by former global data center network manager Jason Forrester, are aiming to overturn the ancient regime of proprietary standards for basic switches and routers and replace it with truly open-source standards that any user can customize.

In an unusually personal blog on the site of Forrester's company, Snaproute.com, he writes about the problem, his proposed solution and the long, strange journey that got him to this point.

"Our goal is to free talented network engineers to do their job to the best of their ability, unconstrained by vendor lock-in. We think — no, we know — that this could accelerate innovation and reduce costs for thousands of companies," he writes. He intends to do this with a solution called FlexSwitch.

According to Forrester, it was while he was overseeing expansion of Apple's data centers starting in 2011 that he and his team began exploring radically different solutions to the problems of network maintenance. At the time, Apple operated only two data centers tasked with song and app distribution and internal traffic. When Forrester left Apple, the company added a few more centers to handle its growing stable of internet services including Siri, Maps, iMessage and iCloud.

Forrester calls the experience "thrilling and terrifying" because of the stakes, the attention and the consequences of even the tiniest glitch in the company's traffic. In order to dive into the guts of the network, Forrester's team began developing its own tools to take on tasks like mass upgrading switching software without taking the network offline.

"If you haven't heard, Apple likes to keep such internal accomplishments to itself, so I can't share the results," Forrester writes. In fact, that was the case with many of Forrester's solutions.

"Slowly, our desire to share our ideas with the world began to overshadow the thrill and pride of working for Apple," he recalls. "My team and I left I 2015. Truth be told, I spent a few days crying on the couch."

However, his mood improved when potential customers reacted positively to his ideas and solutions.

Forrester writes that he has tapped into a wellspring of frustration and demand for truly open-source networks that users can fix, customize and improve. He acknowledges that he's not the only one doing this; Dell announced an initiative with Cumulus Networks last year and Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have made similar announcements.

Forrester believes Snaproute's approach will stand out because network operators need purpose-built networking software beyond Linux. Approaches that work with servers will not work with networks, he argues.

However, his first challenge is to build an ecosystem of partners, customers and distributors for his solution, called FlexSwitch. It will be offered as an option for the OpenSwitch operating system, which was launched last year. Snaproute will also contribute its code to Facebook's Open Compute Program.

Forrester denies that he's trying to take the market by storm or kill Cisco and states that he believes that most companies are better off remaining with their existing suppliers and technology - although Snaproute will offer an alternative.

"Rather, we plan to proceed with humility and an operational-minded pragmatism to build an ecosystem to help companies who want to use Internet infrastructure as a competitive advantage," he writes.


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